The Russian language loses its position in Kyrgyzstan and possibly also in Moscow

(Source: Silk Road Explore)

Moscow has long celebrated that Russian enjoys higher official status and more respect in Kyrgyzstan than in any other country in Central Asia. This situation is symbolized by the fact that the current president, Sooronbay Zheenbekov, is a former teacher of Russian. But this is reinforced by the fact that so many citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic move to the Russian Federation as guest workers and have a competitive advantage to get work if they know Russian. As a result, more than a generation after the demise of the Soviet Union, a higher percentage of Kyrgyz people still speak Russian as a second language (if not the first) than any other titular nation in the region (Kyrgyzstan Statistical Service, 2013, accessed January 23, 2019). The Russian government hopes that the situation will continue as the Kremlin equates the Russian language with belonging to the so-called “Russian world” (“Russkiy mir“).

But now there is a chance that the status quo in Kyrgyzstan may change. In the words of Viktoriya Panfilova from Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “The Russian language loses its position in Kyrgyzstan” and, along with the language, Russia as well. Participants in a roundtable in November 2018 in Bishkek, on “Kyrgyzstan: yesterday, today and tomorrow”, discussed the role that Russian should have in the country (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 16, 2019). And recently Azimbek Beknazarov, a Kyrgyz opposition politician, told reporters that along with representatives from 47 other opposition political groups, he drafted a law calling for a referendum to deprive Russian of its status. official language. If the measure is approved, he said, it would mean that Kyrgyzstan, like any normal country, would do all its official business in the language of the titular nationality, whose representatives now form more than 75 percent of the population. (Interfax, January 16, 2019).

When Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many officials used Russian for almost all official business. Some did not speak Kyrgyz well enough to do otherwise; and therefore the government decided to keep Russian as the second official language. This meant that much of the official business and almost all of post-secondary education remained Russian-speaking, a trend that led parents to have their children learn Russian earlier so that they could enjoy higher education and get government jobs. But it has also been a source of irritation for many Kyrgyz ethnic groups, who are offended that the language of a foreign country and former occupant retains a de facto status higher than theirs.

Over the past decade, there have been numerous attacks on Russia’s status (, May 16, 2013;, March 24, 2015). But to date, all of these have failed. Part of the reason stems from fears that the end of the language’s official status will drive many of the nearly 500,000 Russian-speaking Kyrgyzstani to leave, depriving the country of some of its most qualified specialists. Additionally, a phased administrative phasing out of Russian would make it more difficult for residents of Kyrgyzstan who are not fluent in the language to travel to Russia to earn money as guest workers – a source of income the impoverished country depends on. The impeded access to the Russian market for Kyrgyz labor could also pave the way for the growth of greater Chinese influence in the Central Asian Republic, which worries many Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, it could trigger a sharp deterioration in Bishkek’s relations with Moscow. Or it could destabilize the perpetually volatile internal situation in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the southern regions of the country. Panfilova highlights all of these factors. But it also raises the suspicion that the Kyrgyz opposition is simply using the language as a wedge issue to bring down the current government (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 16, 2019).

Nonetheless, evidence is now available that support for reducing Russians’ status in Kyrgyzstan is increasing – or, at least, that the government has concluded that it needs to take action in that direction or face an even more drastic outcome. . A few days ago, the Education Ministry issued a decree specifying that post-secondary educational institutions will give preference to students with tested proficiency in Kyrgyz. From a Russian perspective, this is the beginning of the end because it means that the next generation of Kyrgyz officials will be Kyrgyz speakers. While those who do not know Kyrgyz will almost certainly be excluded from the elite. It seems certain that this move, rather than the opposition’s call for a referendum, is what prompted Panfilova’s article in a central Russian newspaper.

The opposition would like to organize the referendum next November, but the prospects of winning such a vote are uncertain. A similar move in 2011 by former president Roza Otunbayeva failed; and according to the local independent political analyst Kubat Rakhimov, there is reason to believe that this one will too, especially if the current authorities in Bishkek come to see this decision as being more directed against them than in favor of the Kyrgyz language. Rakhimov added that there is support for strengthening the status of Kyrgyzstan but not for lowering the status of Russian, and concerns persist that a language referendum could “trigger” events in Kyrgyzstan like those in Kyrgyzstan. Ukraine or Moldova, which could lead to Chinese intervention (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 16, 2019).

The opposition has clearly thrown in the gauntlet with its call for a referendum, and the coming months in Kyrgyzstan should be defined by this debate. And overall, Moscow can be expected to stoke fears over the Russian flight, guest worker restrictions, and China’s role in Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to preserve Russia’s last stronghold in Central Asia ( see EDM, October 12, 2017 and January 11, 2018; see Comments, May 5, 2018) to drop.

Sylvester L. Goldfarb

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